Civil War: Alex Garland’s spectacle of violence is determined to throw the audience off balance

Four photojournalists and writers go to extreme lengths to cover the violent atrocities of a North American civil war in Alex Garland’s thrilling examination of Hollywood violence.

9 April 2024

By Henry K Miller

Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny as Lee and Jessie in Civil War (2024)
Sight and Sound

The idea that we are living in end times is the off-screen frame of reference for Alex Garland’s new film, which promises the spectacle of apocalyptic violence, provides it in horrific excess, then asks why we looked. There is a war raging between the US government, led by a President who speaks with the cadences of Donald Trump, and the rebel Western Forces, consisting of California and Texas, but we are given only the slightest hints as to its causes and progress, and no sense of whether it is just. The main characters do not take sides. 

Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura) are a photojournalist and writer setting out from New York to Washington, DC, in the hope of interviewing the President; Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) are an older writer and younger would-be photojournalist who tag along. Their press credentials enable them to move around freely (with some hair-raising exceptions), and it is often unclear where they are in relation to the front line. Both sides have uniformed armies in the field, but there are also militias whose loyalties are not spelt out. 

The film takes it for granted that wars deviate from their purported aims, just or otherwise, and that civil war entails score-settling, petty acts of brutal violence that have little or nothing to do with them. In the first scene of atrocity, Garland’s dramatic focus is neither the militiaman nor the prisoners he is torturing, but the two photographers. Over the course of the film Jessie will learn from Lee – who calmly takes a snap – to disengage and put getting the shot above all else; conversely Lee’s ability to take her own advice this is tested to its limit. There is an All About Eve (1950) quality to their relationship, which forms the film’s central narrative and builds to an inevitable and satisfying end.  

Garland’s interest in portraying the amoral ways of war photographers is matched if not exceeded by his interest in the implied consumers of the images they make, and by extension the consumers of violent fantasy images – the kind that fill films like Civil War. As a result, his film has a thrilling tendency to throw its audience off balance. In one scene, the militia the main foursome is following shoot a wounded soldier dead while he’s in the act of surrender, cueing a gross, Full Metal Jacket-type needle drop with De La Soul’s “Say No Go”. The song continues over a montage sequence in which Jessie finds the mettle to dissociate and photograph the militia machine-gunning their prisoners, photographer and subject framed just so, to make us aware our eyes are on her. 

Civil War (2024)

This is not even the film’s most disturbing moment: later Jesse Plemons has a terrifying cameo as a government soldier overseeing the filling-in of a mass grave. Here again, what is significant is how the principal characters respond. For Jessie, as she admits, the danger is life-affirming. Garland’s characters, as far back as his 1996 novel The Beach, are seekers of extreme experiences, often shaped by an environment not quite like our own, though not so unalike that we cannot see something of ourselves in them. Mostly this is communicated wordlessly. Towards the end, as the Western Forces converge on the White House in a stunningly realised battle sequence, Jessie and Joel exchange looks that express their exhilaration as a helicopter gunship rains fire on the barricades. It seems wildly out of place to the rational mind, but are we the audience not exhilarated too?  

What, after all, is a ‘stunningly realised’ battle sequence meant to look and sound like? Perhaps like Apocalypse Now (1979), which was referred to in The Beach and sampled in Danny Boyle’s film adaptation. Or like the combat footage described in J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, “satisfying low-threshold fantasies of violence and aggression”? Or like White House Down (2013), Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster conspiracy thriller? The film ends, as it must, with soldiers storming the Oval Office, where Jessie gets the shot of a lifetime. Here Garland uses Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”, a song memorably deployed in Adam Curtis’s Hypernormalisation (2016) to soundtrack a montage of clips from 1990s blockbusters showing American cities being blown up, all presaging 9/11. 

Garland is no more likely than Ballard to make an unequivocal political statement – this is part of his films’ unsettling power – but with this Oval office scene, concluding the best film he has directed, he makes us confront the violence we apparently dream about today, and shows us what’s on the end of our fork.

 ► Civil War is in UK cinemas now.